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EATS: Ventura County | RESTAURANT REVIEW

Willing to Wait

Scenic setting, savory grill choices draw crowds to Adobe Cantina.

September 18, 1997|MAX JACOBSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Dusk was approaching, and the Agoura hills were ravishingly streaked with color. But for the five of us, sitting on a bench in the sprawling courtyard outside Adobe Cantina, the beauty was cold comfort. Three harried young hostesses had been promising us a table for more than an hour and a quarter.

There actually are some indoor tables at Adobe Cantina, but on warm nights practically everyone wants to sit on the lovely patio. At last we were seated and after a good 20 minutes' wait, a profusely apologetic waiter came over and asked whether we needed anything. Yes, we said, we were ready to give him the whole order. Ten minutes later, a bus boy brought us a basket of blue and yellow corn chips and side dishes of pico de gallo salsa. At least we knew the food delivery process was underway.

It's no mystery why people are willing to put up with long waits to dine at Adobe Cantina. Apart from the gorgeous location, it's a handsome hacienda-style building. And it specializes in some of our favorite foods: Mexican and barbecue. Owner Bruce Spencer, the menu tells us, is partnered with Rib Ticklers, a Northwestern outfit that has won awards in regional cook-offs for long-smoked Southern-style barbecue, mostly tri-tip sirloin, baby back ribs, chicken and pulled pork roast.

When we finally got our charbroiled swordfish taco appetizer, it certainly was delicious. The fish fillets were nicely fresh, the corn tortillas freshly made, and we got two sauces, that textbook pico de gallo and a snappy chipotle mayonnaise. The Caesar salad, though, had too much grated cheese and a rather wimpy dressing. And the seared ahi tuna salad, dressed with cilantro, ginger and jalapen~os, was too salty.

As for the barbecue, I'd describe it as competent. The best thing to order is definitely the pulled pork roast. It's tender, juicy, smoky meat, perfectly blackened around the edges and not-so-subtly perfumed with mesquite. The chefs pull shreds off the shoulder, and arrange them in a pile on your plate.

You can order sliced tri tip, but we had the tri-tip steak, which the menu describes as "thick yet tender, smoked and seared on the grill." Well, thick, si, but tender, no. And there wasn't much to the flavor but smoke.

"Best ribs in the West" were about average. (They make meatier, tastier baby backs at Wood Ranch Barbecue down the road.) There is also smoke-bronzed, rubbery-skinned barbecued chicken, slightly dried out from being cooked over mesquite. We improved ours by brushing it with the searingly hot--and very good--Turbo sauce, the second hottest sauce Adobe Cantina serves. (There is also one called Nytro, which none of us dared try.)

For those who don't eat red or poultry meat, Adobe Cantina broils nice-sized fish filets, and does a reasonably good job. Pacific red snapper is the best value at $11.95. Sea bass is pricier, but goes particularly well with pico de gallo and lemon wedges, basically your only way to season a fish here.

A choice of uninspiring side dishes accompanies the entrees: bland cole slaw, French fries from a freezer bag and the cloying Mom's beans, which could use less sugar and more of something--maybe just a shot of that Turbo sauce. The restaurant also buys a few desserts, such as a nondescript cheesecake and a very sweet, heavily frosted chocolate cake. But the magnificent sunsets and cool, fragrant night air are free, and they are certainly Adobe Cantina's biggest selling points.

BE THERE

Adobe Cantina, 29100 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills. Open 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Dinner for two, $27-$49. Suggested dishes: charbroiled fish tacos, $9.95; pulled pork roast, $9.95; Pacific red snapper, $11.95. Full bar. Parking lot. All major cards. (818) 991-FISH.

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